The Arts

The Stratford Adventure Part I: Hirsch

The Stratford Adventure Part I: Hirsch featured image

Our film and sometimes theatre critic Marc Glassman recently spent a week at the Stratford Festival. This is the first of his three reviews. 

A weekend at the Stratford Festival is always an adventure in theatre going, with a challenging diversity of productions to attend. It seems appropriate for this review to evoke the title of the NFB Oscar-nominated ‘50s documentary that chronicled that fabled first year, 60 years on. Tyrone Guthrie is long gone but the drama, imagination and integrity of the festival is still marvellously evident in this, an anniversary year. And so is the range of material on offer, from a new Canadian production to an elaborate re-staging of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera to the comparatively rare mounting of a late play by the festival’s inspiration, Shakespeare.

Paul Thompson, director
Alon Nashman, creator, conception and performance as John Hirsch


Hirsch is a one-man show by the multi-talented performer Alon Nashman working in collaboration with veteran populist director Paul Thompson. It’s a theatrical evocation of the life and art of John Hirsch, who, among many other positions in his career, was Artistic Director of Stratford from 1980 through 1985. But that hardly begins to describe Hirsch’s peripatetic career.

Starting in puppet theatre in Winnipeg,  Hirsch was directing adult drama by 1951, when he was only 21. Before he was 30, he and Tom Hendry created and were running the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC). His acclaim at the MTC soon led him to directing Brecht in French in Montreal and Chekhov at Stratford.  A rising star, Hirsch became an Associate Director at Stratford in the late ‘60s, staging among other things, a rock musical version of Satyricon.

Resigning from Stratford, he spent five years in the US, winning an Obie among other accolades, before returning to Canada to head up the CBC’s drama department for three controversial and exciting years. In the mid ‘70s, he created a masterpiece—a terrifyingly evocative adaptation of the Yiddish myth The Dybbuk, which starred the young Marilyn Lightstone. His return as the artistic head of Stratford allowed him the opportunity to direct some of his finest work including versions of The Tempest and King Lear.

While this recounting of his theatrical highlights hardly seems dramatic, that’s due to it not being the complete story of Hirsch. Born in Hungary in 1930, he was the sole survivor among his immediate family of the Holocaust. While his adoptive parents in Winnipeg treated him with love, Hirsch suffered not only from the demons unleashed in any victim of the Holocaust but by being gay in a society that was much more repressive and prejudiced than today.

Hirsch was, by the accounts of his friends and foes in theatre, a genius. He was an intense director, who fought hard to get his vision on stage. That creative impulse was a blessing and a curse, making many of his productions as dramatic in their execution as they were on stage.

In creating Hirsch, Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson have used methods that evoke the documentary approach used by Theater Passe Muraille back in its heyday. As Thompson did back then, they’ve talked to scores of Hirsch’s colleagues. Among them are Martha Henry, Charles Pachter, Peter Herndorf, Zoe Caldwell and Roberta Maxwell. It’s a veritable who’s who of English Canada’s artistic scene from the 1960s through  the ‘80s.

Nashman channels Hirsch through these sources, offering story upon story of the Canadian Jewish director’s life from the Holocaust to his death from AIDS in 1989. It’s a complicated tale—difficult to evoke with a one-man show. Nashman is brilliant in the Hungarian scenes, where the young Hirsch learns how to handle life under the Nazis. A performer who can easily use Yiddish and a middle-European accent, Nashman is  successful in giving the roots of Hirsch’s difficult argument with the world.

The problem in the play lies in the telling of Hirsch’s life as a theatre director. While Nashman gives the sense of Hirsch’s artistic passion and difficult relationships with actors, the scenes begin to feel diffuse. One has to ask from time to time: where are we exactly and with whom is Hirsch struggling?

There’s much to recommend in Hirsch, particularly Alon Nashman’s fine performance. One hopes that the play can continue to grow and change under Thompson’s direction. With a little more narrative clarity, the brilliant but tragic life of John Hirsch could have an appeal far beyond that of the theatrical cognoscenti, who are already enjoying the production.

Part II: Cymbeline

Part III: Pirates of Penzance

photo | Alon Nashman | Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

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